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An Interview with Dr. Iona Italia on Dr. Norman Finkelstein and Professor Alan Dershowitz, American and British Academe, and Trends in Tenure (Part Four)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/09/08


Dr. Iona Italia is an Author and Translator, and a Sub-Editor for Areo Magazine, and Host of Two for Tea. She discusses: Dr. Norman Finkelstein and Professor Alan Dershowitz; academe and probabilities of tenure; a trend in academe; and the how and why of the devaluing of the arts and the humanities.

Keywords: academe, Alan Dershowitz, American, Areo Magazine, British, Iona Italia, Norman Finkelstein, Two for Tea.

An Interview with Dr. Iona Italia on Dr. Norman Finkelstein and Professor Alan Dershowitz, American and British Academe, and Trends in Tenure: Host, Two for Tea & Sub-Editor, Areo Magazine (Part Four)[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: One, I am thinking of individuals who, either due to life circumstance or a change of purpose in life, made a deliberate choice to leave academe. A second category, I am thinking of individuals who were either blacklisted, kicked out, or defamed in some way such that they could not recover from it.

Italia: Of course, there are also people who did not get tenure, did not get enough publications et cetera, the usual things. In academe, that is common.

Jacobsen: That third category can relate to the second category. I think of the case of Norman Finkelstein at DePaul University. Here was a case of someone several books in, well-published, going for tenure at DePaul, not going for tenure at Yale or something, but a decent university.

Harvard’s youngest full law professor ever, Professor Alan Dershowitz, starts spreading rumours and lies, and defaming him, saying, “Do not let him get tenure.” Why does he say this? Because he was critical of some aspects of not necessarily Holocaust memorializing, but abusing the use of it for financial or political gain, and said The Case for Israel (2003) contained plagiarisms.

One example was a book called From Time Immemorial (Ed. Joan Peters). He went through the citations and references in the book. He found out the whole thing was one big, fat fraud. Professor Chomsky tells him, ‘You can do it, but if you do, you are going to show a certain category of intellectuals as frauds, and they are not going to like it, and they are going to come after you.’ He went ahead and did it anyway. He’s been maybe 10, 15 years, in his words: not unemployed, alone, but unemployable.

That third category can relate to the second category. There are not distinct cases of it.

Dr. Iona Italia: In the early 2000s, I taught at a liberal arts college in the US. I probably will not say the name, I think, even though I have nothing particularly bad to say about it, but it was one of the top-ten ranked colleges in the States. My CV is online, so if anybody wants to know, they can go and look. It is not secret. Then I taught at UEA.

In the UK, the atmosphere is much more relaxed in academe than it is in the US. In the US, at teaching colleges, you must pretend that you are ready to give a kidney for the students, as necessary. If you are not yet tenured, you are much on your best behaviour in all kinds of ways.

This was before Social Justice began taking off. The Social Justice movement with a capital S and a capital J. Nevertheless, toeing the line, being seen to agree with everybody, being decorous, it is a hierarchical system. Whether or not you get tenured, things like whether people like you are important to that. I can see that being a factor.

In the UK, academics are much more cynical. They tend to bitch about students and about each other. We had big fights at faculty meetings. People are relaxed. Your tenures depend on one thing, and one thing alone, and that is the number of publications that you have within that RAE cycle—Research Assessment Exercise cycle—because the department’s funding is dependent on the results of the RAE, so your job is also dependent on the results of the RAE.

That is a difference in emphasis which might well affect the atmosphere in the UK versus the US. Now, Social Justice has entered the mix as one of the ways in which you have to be on your best behaviour, I imagine, at many schools. It must depend on the department, the individuals there, et cetera.

I think that back when I was teaching, I do not recall it being an issue at all. I do remember that when I was teaching there, The Bell Curve came out, Charles Murray’s book. I read it. I thought it was boring. I read it because I had seen in the New York Times that it was some scandalous book, so I decided to read it.

I remember having this sudden shock when I got to the part where he surveys the IQ of the different groups. I thought, “I do not like this idea at all.” Then I turned the page and he was talking about how nobody knows if this is genetics, or environment, or some mixture, or whatever, and I disregarded it. A couple of other people in my department read it. They were like, “Nah.” Then it was never mentioned again, for example.

I do remember that somebody in the department used the word “fist-fuckers” in the title of one of their courses.

Anyway, the title of the course was “Dykes, Something, and Fist-Fuckers.” I cannot remember what the third thing is. The board of directors objected to this. Some parental committee objected. The Dean stood up for the person’s academic freedom. The course continued to have the word “fist-fuckers” in the title.

I think it was in sociology, or maybe it was in English. [Laughing] I cannot remember even which department, whether it was in our department or not. I do remember that being the one time that something blew up that was freedom of speech-related, at the college, whilst I was there.

We did have sexual harassment training, which was fun. We had to do roleplaying. I enjoyed that because I used to be a keen thespian. I used to do a lot of theatres when I was an undergraduate. I remember how enjoyable that was. Afterwards, though, I heard that—although there had been a couple of cases in which students had brought suits against other students—no student in the history of the college had brought a sexual harassment suit against a professor, so I relaxed again.

We did also have the instruction that you must never close the door when you are with a student, which was awkward because I was a student advisor. Sometimes students came to talk about personal things and the whole corridor was open plan, so it was easy to be overheard. Those students would immediately close the door. I would spring up and open the door again. Then they would spring up and close the door. I would spring up and open the door.

Those are the only work-related things I remember happening on campus. We also did have affirmative action. A few people whispered in a quiet voice that because of affirmative action, all the few African American students we had in the college were also always among the worst-performing students because they had all come from affirmative action.

I think there was one professor in our department who rarely came to social events with us, although he played on the faculty baseball team, for whom I scored a home run in our match against the students. We beat the students because the students were so drunk [Laughing] that we beat them. I scored the winning run.

Sorry, I am rambling a little bit. He was on that team but otherwise did not join us socially. It was whispered that this was because he was a Republican. Those are the anecdotes that I have about Social Justicey things.

I think the other thing that was vaguely related is that there was a compulsory literary theory course on the syllabus. Nobody wanted to teach literary theory, so always people who weren’t tenured had to teach literary theory. It was a poisoned chalice because most of us did not enjoy teaching it, but more importantly, the students mostly hated it, and then they would give us poor student evaluations, and that could put you at risk of not getting tenure.

Everybody was always trying to avoid having to teach that course. I had to teach it and it is tough. When you have to teach material you yourself hate or do not feel is worth learning but you have to convey that it is worth learning because the students have no choice but to take the course, that is a tough situation to be in pedagogically.

2. Jacobsen: How many would-be professors get tenure?

Italia: I do not know what the proportion is. Whilst I was there, three or four people came up for tenure. I think two were granted and two were refused, including one in my department. I think this wasn’t the case where I was, but at some of the Ivy League and other similar universities, they operate a shark embryo system, where there is one tenure position and four people are up for it. I think a lot of people do not get tenure.

I do not know what proportion of academics who fail to get tenure one place never manage to get tenure elsewhere. I knew a lot of people who never managed to get a tenure track position and who simply had one short-term position after another.

3. Jacobsen: Has this been a worsening trend? If so, what does this portend for the next five years?

Italia: I haven’t followed it closely, so I do not know. I haven’t been following the stats. I suspect so. My belief, my feeling, and what I gathered from a couple of articles I read is that colleges are hiring more and more admin in order to comply with diversity requirements and legal requirements that are Social Justice related.

Admin salaries are much, much higher than academic staff salaries. A lower and lower percentage of student fees are going towards academic salaries, so I am sure more people are being laid off. I think that, in general, there has been a strong devaluing of the arts and humanities.

4. Jacobsen: How? Why?

Italia: How? “How” is simply a question of money. Why? On the one hand, I think in general, there is a devaluation of writing. There is a sense that you can read everything you need to read online, and people will write for free.

I think that also there is a lack of understanding of what education is about, which to me, is not about sitting on your own, reading things and then writing your thoughts. What is crucial is having your thoughts challenged. The important thing is the feedback from the professor and from other people in your supervision group, or whatever you call it in your country, from professors and from other students, and that is something that you cannot get as an autodidact.

I think that is why so many people who are autodidacts have crazy opinions. Those opinions have never had to sustain the rigor of being strongly questioned. I think that is part of it. In the US it is such a harshly plutocratic, capitalist culture. I believe in capitalism. Communism is a failed system which doesn’t work. It goes against human nature. You need capitalism for wealth generation.

But I would like to see capitalism in which things are not only valued on their monetary value. So, “You have cancer, but your monetary value is low, so you can die.” “You cannot monetize the Shakespeare sonnets. There is no point in studying it.” That attitude, I feel, has been destructive.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Host, Two for Tea; Sub-Editor, Areo Magazine.

[2] Individual Publication Date: September 8, 2019:; Full Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2020:


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